Sept. 24, 2013
By Chuck Stark
Special to the Kitsap Sun
He's not ashamed to admit that life at the U.S. Military Academy took some getting used to, but Larry Dixon's all in now.
Every Cadet had to commit or de-commit by the start of their first class during their fourth year at West Point. The contract Dixon signed commits the Army fullback to five years of active military service and three years duty in the reserves following his graduation.
"This is a tough place whether you play sports or not," said West Sound's all-time leading rusher. "It's different than most colleges. It's a different lifestyle. You just get used to it."
As much as he's enjoyed his beast-mode like football experience at Army, the transition from high school to military prep school to one of the most demanding institutions around wasn't easy. He said he had a lot of conversations with his mom, Laura Ashley, a retired senior petty officer who served in the Navy for 24 years. His dad, Larry Dixon Sr., also retired from the military after 20-plus years.
"I talked about leaving all the time," he said during a recent phone call from New York. "Everyday I'd go to bed and I'd think, 'Is this the right place for me?'"
It's too late to change his mind now.
"I took my affirmation," he said. "It's a signed deal and now that I made the decision, I feel comfortable with it."
Dixon was pretty much Mr. Everything at Olympic High. He averaged close to 20 points in basketball, ran the sprints and placed third at state in the shot put. He was also a two-time team captain in football and basketball.
Army offensive coordinator Ian Shields recruited Dixon.
"He was a highly productive athlete but a lot of things attracted me to Larry," Shields said. "We have very high academic standards here at West Point and that checked out (Dixon had a 3.2 GPA at Olympic and is around a 3.0 at Army). Next was character. That was beyond checked out. No one could say enough good things about Larry Dixon.
"Next you meet his family and his mom did a tremendous job raising Larry. That household might have been more disciplined than West Point. ... He just kind of slipped through the cracks and we stayed on him. I'm glad we did."
Dixon said he's still got a lot to accomplish at Army - on the playing field and in the classroom - but he's looking forward to the next chapter of his life.
"I'm excited and nervous at the same time about getting to lead soldiers," he said. "I'll get to do things I've only kind of gotten to see here. I've talked to a lot of Army officers and I can't wait to get out there."
During October of his senior year, he'll list his job preferences, rating them in order from 1-16. At the branch notification ceremony later that year, the Class of 2014 will find out how they will serve as officers in the U.S. Army, whether it be infantry, quartermaster, transportation, air defense or any of the 16 branches offered.
Dixon's already decided that his preference is to become an officer in the infantry.
"After talking to infantry guys you can't help but want to be in that atmosphere," he said.
Right now, Dixon's more concerned about getting healthy and helping his Army brothers break a three-game losing streak. He missed Saturday's loss against Wake Forest because of a sprained ankle, but was cleared "for limited reps" this week and is expected to play when Army (1-3) takes on Louisiana Tech in Dallas.
Dixon started five of 12 games at Army as a freshman, rushing for 542 yards. He bulled for 839 yards and six touchdowns as a sophomore and was off to a good start this season until dinging his ankle in the third-quarter against Stanford.
Dixon rushed for 107 yards in a season-opening win over Morgan State, and followed up with a career-high 113-yard game with two touchdowns against Ball State. Before leaving with the injury, he scored on a 15-yard run against No. 5 Stanford, a game in which Army lost 34-20.
Dixon's a fullback in Army's wishbone attack, but Shields said he's "really a sturdy tailback. He's a featured ball carrier in our offense. Certainly he blocks and catches a few balls, but primarily those guys are runners first."
Army calls the position B-back. There's an A-back, B-back and C-back. "He'd probably consider it Beast Back," Shields said.
Actually, Dixon called it "Big Back," and last year he might have been too big. The 5-foot-10 Dixon remains one of the hardest working athletes in the weight room at Army, as he was in high school, but he played at 248-250 pounds. He's now 20 pounds lighter and quick enough to be a kick returner.
"I think he liked his groceries a little too (much) last year," Shields said. "He's been more disciplined this year with his eating habits. He's really fanatical about what he puts in his system.
"He had a 71-yard touchdown run against Ball State and they have a bunch of fast guys. A year ago he'd have got caught from behind," Shields said.
"I feel quicker and I'm definitely a lot stronger than I was," he said. "It doesn't change the way I play. I still want to put it in, get it in the end zone."
Dixon takes as many hits as any player in football. Even when he doesn't carry the ball, he gets tackled. It's the nature of the position and the offense.
During a game against Boston College last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that Dixon was tackled 34 times. On 22 of those tackles, he wasn't even carrying the ball. He was a decoy, carrying out the fake.
Dixon doesn't mind the pummeling.
"I crave contact," he said. "I have a fun time doing it. It's not a position everybody wants to play but I enjoy it. I get to be physical and run the ball."
It's a pretty dramatic change of style in how he played in high school.
"Yeah, I could be a little more shifty in high school and use my speed. Here I'm more of a north-south runner," he said. "I get to hang out with the middle linebacker and defensive line all day."
Fumble drives him
A year ago, in the Army-Navy game - the Black Knights trailed 17-13 and were driving with a little over a minute left for what would have been the go-ahead, and likely winning touchdown. Army quarterback Trent Steelman and Larry Dixon botched a handoff on a simple triple option play on first down at the Navy 14. The Middies recovered the fumble and secured their 11th straight win in the series between service rivals.
"I'm not sure what happened there," Steelman later said. "Simple triple-option play. No way am I going to put something like that on Larry, so put it on me."
A year later, Dixon says he thinks about that play all of the time.
"You let it motivate you," he said. "I had to own up to it, take responsibility for it. It drives me. It drove me during the offseason in how I conditioned. It drives the way I practice. It drives me in everything I do on the field."
When it was mentioned that Steelman had taken credit for the mistake, Dixon doesn't want to hear it.
"It was my fault," he said. "I got tired, the game wore on me. I let it wear on me. I wasn't tough enough to finish it. Ultimately, I let the team down."
When asked about the fumble, Shields said, "It's a team game. Credit both for taking the blame. Both were initially involved in what happened, so to a degree both were responsible. It's our standard triple-option play. We do it a million times a season. Unfortunately, the fundamentals got away from us. In some ways for Larry, I think that's great motivation moving forward."
'Going by fast'
For Dixon, life at West Point has zoomed by pretty fast. He said it seems like yesterday he was enrolling at Army's prep academy.
"I can still remember as a sophomore getting ready to play Camas in our playoff game, or that first game against Central Kitsap," he said. "Now I'm one of the most senior guys here. Freshman come up and ask me questions."
Dixon turned down a recruiting trip to Hawaii and had a couple of walk-on offers to other Division I schools, but Army was his top choice all along.
And when he was asked what the highlight of his college career has been thus far, he took a long time before he answered.
"It sounds kind of weird, but just getting to do it," he said. "It's all one highlight. Since elementary school I always wanted to play Division I football and every day I'm waking up and doing exactly what I wanted to do and I'm doing it at one of the best schools in the world."
Dixon's typical day starts with a 5:50 a.m. wakeup. He cleans his room and gets his uniform together before heading to a two-hour practice that starts at 6:50 a.m. After showering and breakfast, he has classes and meetings until 5 p.m. Dinner is between 5:10-6 p.m. Then it's time for homework before hitting the rack around 8:30-9 p.m.
He's currently studying military science, psychology and leadership, microeconomics, system engineering and intensive intermediate French.
Shields is proud of what Dixon's accomplished, and he knows he's only touching the surface.
"There's just something special about Larry," he said.
"It's easy to recognize a winner, and that's what I saw. He's going to be a winner all of his life. Those are the guys we need. As great an athlete and cadet Larry Dixon is at West Point, he's going to be a better officer and leader for our nation than he is a football player."
Before getting off the phone, Dixon had a special request.
"Could you just say that I said thanks to everybody who's helped me along the way, just to kind of show them I remember where I came from and appreciate all they did for me."